'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Tuesday 31 January 2012

Guest Post: Sheryl Gwyther on Grug . . . a little miracle worker

KBR warmly welcomes friend and literary talent Sheryl Gwyther with this interesting post on a bookish icon.

If you were at school or were a parent or teacher between 1979 and 1992, you’ll know about Grug – the hairy, brown and yellow striped character who inhabited a series of books written by Australian author, Ted Prior. (re-published by Simon & Schuster, Australia)

Why is Grug a miracle worker?

Before I get to that, let me tell you about Grug. Set in the Australian bush (and city), this small fictional character was formed when the top fell off a Burrawang tree. Grug looks like he’s the progeny of a haystack and a striped football sock.

The stories were simple about simple doings – like learning to swim, painting a house, visiting the zoo and the beach, eating an apple. Doesn’t sound like all that much, does it?

But, oh boy, when I was teaching my Family Group class of 5 to 9-year-olds at Woodridge North State School in the 1980s, the kids adored him.

Was it his funny sense of humour? Or the colourful illustrations? Or the tricky situations Grug continually got himself into? It was all of these, and more.

Titles number well over 25. The story lines are simple. But the different expressions on Grug’s face are sublime, and the words perfectly chosen.

I bought my own Grug books to school to use with the kids in Family Red at Woodridge North State School because we never seemed to have enough resources. There were 4 rooms of Years 1, 2, 3 in the Junior School and I was a novice teacher.

The books were very small so we made Big Books of our own to use with groups – oh yes, we were well and truly into the Whole Language approach to teaching reading in those days.

The kids drew and painted their own interpretations of the story and I printed the words.
Then students began to make up their own booklets with Grug as the hero. The older children in the group wrote the words for the younger ones – a true mentorship program. We explored phonics, comprehension, science, art, geography and language through the genius of Ted Prior and the magic of Grug.

One of my students, Rodney, was seven, under-developed, bright, cheery, but failing to learn to read. He told me reading was ‘like swimming through syrup’. I think the abstract world of the alphabet was too much for his stage of development so he gave up.

One day, I made a puppet out of brown wool with large, plastic eyes that wobbled. I bribed Rodney – if he had a go at reading Grug’s stories, he could look after Grug (the puppet).

Every day, that child headed straight for the row of Grug books, and the larger Grug’s Word Book.
He drew pictures – something he was very good at – and slowly, surely, Rodney also tried to copy Ted Prior’s words and sentences. He began to read in halting sentences, becoming more fluent. He probably knew the stories off by heart, but that didn’t matter.

Within a couple of months, Rodney ‘got it’. It was like the light had switched on over those abstract letters and he knew he could read.

I put this little reading miracle down to that small, brown, stripey creature, Grug.

Here’s a Youtube animation made in 2005 of the first story, Grug. And you can learn more about him here.

Sheryl Gwyther is an author and educational professional, with a passion for literacy. You can learn more about her and her books here - or read more on our Contributors page.